Botswana - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Botswana, a landlocked country in southern Africa. Before gaining independence from Britain in 1966, it was known as Bechuanaland. The country’s name comes from its largest ethnic group, the Tswana. A large majority of the population lives in the eastern part of the country, near the border with South Africa.

Botswana’s diamond mines and other mineral deposits have made it one of the wealthiest African countries. The country has maintained an impressive rate of economic growth since independence. Most of the country is quite dry and unsuited for agriculture. The Kalahari Desert covers much of central and southwestern Botswana. The country is noted for its many animal reserves.

Botswana has been a stable democracy, governed by an elected president, since gaining independence. The country’s official name is Republic of Botswana. Gaborone is the capital and largest city. English is the country’s official language, but most of the people speak a Bantu language.


Most of Botswana is a vast tableland with an average elevation of about 1,000 m (about 3,300 ft). The Kalahari Desert covers the central and southwestern portions of the country. The Kalahari consists of large sand belts and areas that are covered with grass and acacia-thorn scrub much of the year. To the north and the east the Kalahari merges gradually into bushveld (grassland). The eastern part of the country, where most of the people live, is characterized by pleasant hills and rolling plains covered richly with grasses, shrubs, and trees.

Botswana is bounded on the north and west by Namibia, on the northeast by Zambia and Zimbabwe, and on the southeast and south by South Africa.

Rivers and Lakes in Botswana

The Okavango River is the principal river in Botswana. It flows southeast and enters northwestern Botswana from Namibia. Much of northwestern Botswana is a vast swamp, in and around the Okavango Delta, into which the river drains. During the rainy season the river’s flow continues east on the Boteti River to Lake Xau and the Makgadikgadi Pan. The southern part of the country has no permanent streams. The Limpopo, Ngotwane, and Marico rivers separate Botswana from South Africa in the east, and the Molopo River marks the southern boundary. The Chobe River forms the northern boundary with Namibia.

Climate in Botswana

In general, Botswana has a semiarid subtropical climate. Rainfall is greatest in the north, where it averages about 640 mm (about 25 in) annually. In the Kalahari rainfall averages less than 230 mm (less than 9 in). The normal rainy season in Botswana is in the summer months, from December to April. Rainfall, however, is undependable, and droughts are frequent. In general, October is the hottest month, and July is the coldest. A hot wind sweeps in from the west across the Kalahari in August and brings with it dust and sandstorms.

Plant and Animal Life in Botswana

Savanna vegetation predominates in most parts of Botswana, and consists of grasslands interspersed with trees. Principal species include acacia, bloodwood (a type of eucalyptus), and Rhodesian teak. Small areas of forest are found in the northeast, near the border with Zambia. Swamp vegetation, including reeds and papyrus, grows in the wetlands of the northwest.

Botswana is noted for its large game reserves where animals run free. Botswana’s abundant wildlife, which draws many tourists to the country, includes lions, giraffes, leopards, antelopes, elephants, crocodiles, and ostriches. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a vast game reserve, spans the border between Botswana and South Africa. Parks and reserves in Botswana cover 30.2 percent of the total land area (2007). The Okavango Delta is one of the largest inland deltas in the world and provides habitat for elephants, zebras, giraffes, hippopotamuses, and crocodiles. About 550 bird species are found in Botswana.

Natural Resources of Botswana

Large deposits of diamonds were discovered in Botswana shortly after it gained independence in 1966. The country’s other mineral resources include gold, silver, uranium, copper, nickel, coal, manganese, soda ash, asbestos, and salt.

Environmental Issues in Botswana

Environmental problems include overgrazing of the land and desertification. Precipitation is irregular, and the country is prone to drought. A large irrigation and water storage project was planned for the northern part of the country during the 1980s, but environmental concerns and popular opposition led to the suspension of the project in 1992.

Botswana has ratified international agreements on biodiversity, endangered species, the ozone layer, and climate change. The country has also signed treaties limiting trade in endangered animal species.


Botswana had a total population of 1,990,876 in 2009, giving the country a population density of 3.4 persons per square kilometer. However, the population is unevenly distributed, with the majority of people living in the eastern part of the country. The rest of the country is thinly settled because it is so dry.

Botswana’s population was hit hard by one of the world’s highest rates of infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). In the early 2000s Botswana had the highest rates of HIV infection and AIDS in the world. The World Health Organization estimated that nearly 40 percent of people aged 15 to 49 were infected with HIV in Botswana. Deaths from AIDS accounted for a decline in the country’s population and greatly shortened life expectancy. As a result, the country’s population plunged into a negative growth rate. However, the prevalence of HIV infection subsequently decreased, especially among younger people, due to government-supported education, prevention, and treatment programs. The government made medical treatments freely available, including antiretroviral drugs that significantly decreased deaths due to AIDS and other drugs that reduced HIV transmission from infected mothers to their babies. As one indication of the success of the programs, considered the most advanced in Africa, the country’s population growth rate was 1.94 percent in 2009. Life expectancy at birth was 61.9 years, also a significant improvement.

The urban population of Botswana has increased rapidly, from 18 percent of the total in 1981 to 51 percent in 2003. Gaborone, the capital, is the largest city and main business center. Other business centers are Francistown, Selebi-Pikwe, Molepolole, Kanye, and Serowe.

Botswana received its name from the country’s principal ethnic group, the Tswana. Other ethnic groups include the Kgalagadi, Kalanga, and Basarwa. There are also a small number of San (Bushmen), who have inhabited the region for many centuries. The government has attempted to move the San from their ancestral reserves in the Kalahari, citing the cost of supplying them with water and other services. The San have resisted these attempts, claiming that they were being relocated to allow diamond prospectors to mine the land. Botswana also has small minorities of Europeans and Asians.

Religion and Languages spoken in Botswana

About one half of the population practices traditional African religions; most of the remainder are Christians. English is the official language, but most of the people speak Setswana, the language of the Tswana. It belongs to the Sotho subgroup of Bantu languages. Setswana is used throughout the country and is a mother tongue for the majority of the population.

Education in Botswana

In 2007 Botswana’s adult literacy rate stood at 82.9 percent. Most primary schools are supervised by the district councils and township authorities and are financed from local government revenues assisted by grants-in-aid from the central government. Virtually all primary school-aged children were enrolled in school in 2002–2003, while 73 percent of secondary school-aged children were enrolled. Specialized education was provided by teacher-training schools and vocational-training schools. Thousands of students attend the University of Botswana (founded in 1976), in Gaborone.


Since independence in 1966, Botswana has been transformed from a near-subsistence economy into one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing countries in Africa. In 2007 the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $12 billion, or $6,543.70 per person. (GDP is a measure of the value of all the goods and services a country produces.) The transformation of the economy resulted from the discovery of mineral resources, in particular huge deposits of the diamonds that account for about four-fifths of Botswana’s export earnings. Industry, primarily mining, produced 49 percent of GDP in 2007.

From the time of independence, Botswana recorded one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. The growth rate averaged over 9 percent per year from 1966 to 1999. The country’s revenues, largely from diamond mining, exceeded its expenditures. However, the dependence on diamond mining made the country vulnerable to global fluctuations in demand, and the government sought to diversify the economy.

Agriculture of Botswana

Less than 1 percent of the country’s total land area is arable (suitable for growing crops). Raising livestock has long been the most important agricultural activity in Botswana. Goats and sheep adapt to drought better than cattle do. Most of Botswana’s cattle are raised for beef rather than dairy products. About a fifth of the population is engaged in agriculture, most of it at a subsistence level, and agriculture provides a tiny part of the country’s GDP. People grow crops mainly to feed their families.

Mining and Manufacturing in Botswana

Botswana is the world’s largest supplier of gem-quality diamonds, with two-thirds of production meeting gem standards. Diamonds account for four-fifths of Botswana’s annual export revenue. About 23 million carats of gem-quality diamonds were extracted in 2004. Prospectors discovered diamonds in northern Botswana in the late 1960s, and the first mine opened at Orapa in 1971, followed by a smaller mine at Letlhakane. What developed into the world’s richest diamond mine opened in Jwaneng in 1982. Important deposits of copper and nickel are in the Selebi-Pikwe area. Much of the nickel and copper produced annually is exported, as is soda ash and small quantities of gold.

Botswana’s manufacturing sector is small. However, a diamond-processing plant opened in 2008 under the joint ownership of the government and the De Beers diamond giant. The new plant, located in Gaborone, created thousands of jobs. Previously, all of Botswana’s diamonds had been exported for processing. The remainder of the country’s manufacturing sector consists mainly of food-processing and mineral-processing, with some textile production. Botswana produces beef for export.

Currency, Banking, and Trade in Botswana

The currency of Botswana is the pula (6.10 pula equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). In 2007 Botswana’s annual imports cost $2.8 billion; exports earned $4 billion in the same year. The country is in a customs union, the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), which includes Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland. This group is Botswana’s chief trading partner for imports. The United Kingdom is its chief trading partner for exports.

Transportation and Communications in Botswana

Despite being thinly settled and covering an area nearly the size of Texas, Botswana has developed good transportation and communications. A paved highway connects the major cities, and the Trans-Kalahari highway crosses the country and links it to the port of Walvis Bay in Namibia. Botswana has about 24,455 km (about 15,196 mi) of roads and 888 km (552 mi) of railroads. Air Botswana links major domestic communities and has regularly scheduled flights to foreign cities.

The only daily newspaper, the Botswana Daily News, is published by the government, but a number of independent newspapers are published weekly. Radio Botswana, which is also government-controlled, broadcasts in English and Setswana from Gaborone. A national television station began broadcasting in 2000. Two commercial radio networks are also in operation.


Botswana is a multiparty democracy. The country has a president as head of state and head of the government. The president is elected to a five-year term by Botswana’s legislature, called the National Assembly, after legislative elections. The president may serve a maximum of two consecutive terms. A cabinet assists the president. The president selects members of the cabinet, including the country’s vice president, from the National Assembly. The country is governed under a constitution promulgated in 1965.

The National Assembly consists of 57 members chosen in general elections held at least every five years, four specially elected members, the speaker, and the attorney general, who may not vote. The House of Chiefs, with 15 members (including the chiefs of the eight principal Tswana groups), is an advisory body that must be consulted on all tribal matters and on constitutional changes. The leading political party is the Botswana Democratic Party. The judicial system includes magistrates’ courts and the High Court. Appeals in both civil and criminal cases are carried to the Court of Appeal.


The early history of the Tswana is shrouded in legend. The Tswana generally accept the tradition that their principal tribes are descended from a people ruled by a chief named Masilo, who lived around the middle of the 17th century. One of his two sons, Malope, was the father of three sons, Kwena, Ngwato, and Ngwaketse, each of whom gave his name to one of the tribes of present-day Botswana.

Tswana, Afrikaners, and Missionaries in Botswana

The Tswana migrated to the region that is now Botswana by 1800 and by the middle of the 1800s had displaced the original San inhabitants. In the early 1800s much of southern Africa was in a state of confusion because of expansion by the Zulu under the warrior-chief Shaka and by the Ndebele, a Zulu offshoot, under the leadership of Mzilikazi. In 1820 Scottish missionary Robert Moffat established a Christian mission among the Tswana at Kuruman, in an area that is now part of South Africa.

The period between 1820 and 1870 was a time of intertribal fighting and conflict with Afrikaners, or Boers. The Boers resented the growing British influence in southern Africa and began a trek inland, where they sought to take over land. Only a few Tswana groups were able to resist attack. In the meantime David Livingstone, another missionary from Scotland, established a mission among the Bakwena, many of whom were converted to Christianity.


Khama III, who had converted to Christianity in 1862, became chief of the Ngwato people in 1875. By then relations had become increasingly embittered between the Tswana and the Afrikaners. In 1876 Chief Khama urged the British high commissioner for South Africa to take his people under British protection. Not until 1885, with the agreement of all the principal Tswana chiefs, was the territory of the Tswana proclaimed a British protectorate called Bechuanaland.

Official British policy called for respect for African law and custom. In 1895 the British government favored handing over administration of Bechuanaland to the British South Africa Company, a private enterprise run by British financier Cecil Rhodes. The Tswana feared the consequences and Chief Khama and two other chiefs went to England to protest the proposed transfer. Britain then agreed to continue administering the protectorate of Bechuanaland. In return, the chiefs gave up a strip of land on the eastern side of the protectorate for the construction of a railroad.

Although the British high commissioner in South Africa remained responsible for the administration of Bechuanaland until 1964, the actual administrator was a resident commissioner stationed in Mafeking (now Mafikeng) in South Africa. For some years after 1891, British administration involved little more than protecting the territory from other foreign powers. Internal affairs were left in the hands of traditional officials, such as the chiefs. By 1934 changing conditions and African demands for better services required the extension of central government responsibilities.

Toward Independence

With the establishment of the African Advisory Council in 1920, the British allowed the Tswana to participate in the political institutions of Bechuanaland. In 1950 a Joint Advisory Council was set up giving Africans more influence. In 1959 a constitutional committee of the Joint Advisory Council formulated proposals for the creation of a Legislative Council. These were accepted by the British government, and in 1960 Bechuanaland received its first constitutions. In the elections for the Legislative Council in 1961, the largest share of the votes for African members was received by Seretse Khama, the grandson of Chief Khama III. In 1965 a constitution providing for ministerial government was introduced. Under the name Botswana, the country was proclaimed independent on September 30, 1966.

Botswana Since Independence

Khama became the country’s first president in 1966 and was knighted by the British the same year. The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), founded and led by Seretse Khama, won large majorities in elections held in 1969, 1974, and 1979. The principal opposition party was the more radical Botswana National Front (BNF). When Khama died in 1980, he was succeeded by his vice president, Quett Ketumile Joni Masire. Masire and his BDP easily retained power in the 1984, 1989, and 1994 elections. After Masire retired in 1998, he was succeeded by his vice president, Festus Mogae, who won election in 1999 and 2004. In 2008 Seretse Khama Ian Khama, son of Seretse Khama, became president of Botswana.

Since independence, Botswana has maintained the longest continuous multiparty democracy in Africa. Botswana has taken a nonaligned stance in foreign affairs. While it opposed the former racial policies of neighboring South Africa, Botswana, out of economic necessity, maintained close ties with that country. Botswana is the headquarters of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a group that promotes economic growth, and has been a significant contributor to international peacekeeping forces in various war-torn sectors of Africa.

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